In Defense of Curls

Last week I met a strikingly pretty girl—the kind who has it all going on: skin, eyes, lips. I’m going to call her Kelly. Like myself, Kelly’s a natural beauty enthusiast, and she and I had such a fun girly convo—that is until it turned to hair.

See, Kelly is of mixed race—Scottish and African decent if I’m remembering (her ethnicity is almost impossible to pinpoint visually)—and she grew up in an all-white neighborhood HATING her curly hair. She told me she has never worn it the way I dare to wear mine (and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t meant as a compliment). In fact, Kelly has spent her life wrestling with her curls: As a teenager she did a treatment that made all of her hair fall out—literally—and up until a year ago she was never without a weave. These days she just straightens it religiously and, you know, avoids pool parties. She also tries to avoid  rain, sweat, and humidity—and by her own admission plans a lot of her life and movement around keeping her hair straight.

We talked about Chris Rock’s incredible documentary Good Hair, which explores the relationship between black people and their hair—especially what little girls are taught to think about their curls and kinks. Kelly told me that she had something of a meltdown when she watched the movie, seeing her own painful and complex hair relationship reflected back at her. When I expressed how much I’d love to see her with her natural curls, she slit her eyes at me and said flatly: “It will never happen.” OK, got it.

And I do get it. I too dreamt of straight hair and, like Kelly, went to an all-white elementary school where curls were uncommon. I was the only kid of Jewish decent for miles where I grew up, and I got picked on for it by some notorious mean girls and boys. Jokes about my big nose and even bigger hair weren’t uncommon, and extremely painful. As were the nightly brushings and braids I succumbed to because my mother didn’t quite know what to do with my mass.

So, I’m not here to tell everyone they have to accept themselves and love their curls or get all preachy—because I know it can be far more complicated than that, and also not all: Some people just want straight hair. But when I saw this article, The Taming of the Curl, from last week’s Wall Street Journal, I kind of wanted to throw my laptop at the wall.

Sure, it’s just a trend piece, reporting how women long for straight hair and beachy waves instead of curls and frizz. It gets into the dangers around treatments like the Brazilian blowout (though it’s careful not to really condemn it) and quotes an image expert who talks about how professional women just can’t wear their hair in “extremes.” And then it offers up a curly-to-straight slideshow featuring Sarah Jessica Parker (Jewish), Beyonce (black), and Julianna Margulies (Jewish again!). Maybe I’m projecting, but I feel like this slideshow says: Don’t they look so much better? (Oh sorry, Taylor Swift was in the there too because apparently her beachy waves are curls too. I’m calling BS on that one.)

Suffice to say, it’s very hard for me to overlook the racial implications of the war on curls. I’m not saying that this is always the case, or that when it is it’s even conscious, but to my mind ethnicity is part of this complicated curly equation—and not just in Brazil, guys. Right here.

So if the Wall Street Journal is going to take this on, they should be smart enough to realize the implications (they’re the WSJ after all)—and bold enough to acknowledge them.

I’d love to know what you think (and hear any of your stories too).

Barbra Streisand looking ah-mazing via

According to lore, formaldehyde’s hair-straightening powers were discovered by a mortician in Brazil. Whether or not this is true, this Associated Press article is looking to that country to get to the root (their pun, not ours) of the now-infamous Brazilian blowout.

In case you’re new to the topic: Brazilian blowouts can and often do contain formaldehyde, even when the packaging or salon says it doesn’t, which is why Canada and France have both yanked it, and why the California government is suing a company that manufactures the solution. Formaldehyde is considered a human carcinogen. Also? Brazilians make your hair look like crap.

But back to the article: The first half tackles well-covered territory about the blowout’s controversy, but further down there are some serious jaw droppers about the treatment’s history and its ongoing use in Brazil. Specifically:

Hairdressers in Brazil used to mix their formaldehyde treatments DIY! But thankfully the sale of formaldehyde was banned from supermarkets…in 2009.

From the article:

When the straightening treatment started in Brazil, hair dressers mixed their own formulas in beakers with formaldehyde, water, keratin and other ingredients. In 2009, the government agency in charge of health and safety, Anvisa, started cracking down on salons that overuse the chemical. In January alone, they investigated 202 salons suspected of spiking their products, according to a spokesman. The sale of formaldehyde in pharmacies and supermarkets was forbidden in 2009 to stop the practice.

Because some women will go to any lengths to straighten curly hair (more on that below), there’s now an after-hours bootleg-blowout scene that is still thriving in Brazil. Why? Lots of reasons, but racial discrimination and Euro-normative beauty ideals appear to play a pretty big part.

The article goes on to explain that until recently, job ads would ask for applicants with “good appearance”—which Eliza Larkin, the director of IPEAFRO, an institute focusing on Afro-Brazilian studies, says is a euphemism for white. Curly, kinky hair simply wasn’t seen as professional or attractive.

The kind of beauty Brazil exports—the Victoria’s Secret glamazons with the barbie bodies and windblown hair—exists in pretty stark contrast to the 40% of Brazilians who identify as having some African ancestry (and presumably many have the curls that come with it). It’s not that this irony hasn’t been explored at all (thank you Jezebel), but thinking about the Brazilian blowout in a racial context makes it all the more insidious, wouldn’t you agree?

And while the idea of late-night secret blowouts, and homemade formaldehyde formulas is not without a little dark comedy, let’s recall that a healthy 33-year-old woman did die in Brazil from doing one of these home treatments—asphyxiated in her shower by the formaldehyde fumes. Sorry to get all dramatic, but it’s true! It’s right here in this Allure expose from 2007, back when they were exposing stuff.

Hmm. Anything I would add is too painfully obvious to write down, but it all loosely translates to this: Frizzy hair can suck, but there’s something to be said for embracing your hair’s texture no matter how unruly (or just plain curly! or wavy!) it is. And if there’s one thing we’re sure of it’s that no matter how many headaches a bad hair day can cause, it can’t cause respiratory problems, eye irritation, skin rashes or cancer.

Image from Vanity Fair’s Viva Brazil Issue

First things first: Yesterday we were chosen by MyDaily UK as blog of the week! We’re so very flattered, but as I was basking in the glory I came across this disturbing post about how the very beautiful Indian actress Aishwarya Rai Bachchan (or Ash, as the Indian press calls her) is pissed at Elle Magazine.

You see, Ash didn’t take too kindly to the new racial identity provided by Elle India‘s photoshop team [my apologies, I initially wrote Elle UK]. And we have to agree. According to a Times of India source:

“Aishwarya’s first reaction was disbelief,” adding that Aishwarya “believed that these things don’t happen anymore. Not in this day and age when women are recognised for their merit, and not for the colour of their skin. She is currently verifying this skin-whitening allegation. If there is any proof of this, she might even take action.”

Good for her. It’s not the first time that Elle‘s come under the gun for skin-lightening: Last fall there was controversy over Gabby Sidibe’s markedly paler face on the cover. The magazine’s response to that was that nothing “out of the ordinary” was done. Are they kidding? I’ll buy that statement just as soon as a white cover model is turned ten shades darker, also known as when pigs fly.

Adding insult to injury of course, is the fact that—thanks to this kind of pressure—people all over the world still use skin lightening creams. Oh, and those happen to be super dangerous. Does this make you mad too?

Images via MyDaily UK and Jezebel